Negritude as Africans’ exceptionalism

The intellectual/philosophical response to Western exceptionalism has been much more complicated. Its earliest and most comprehensive articulation is the philosophical movement called Negritude.

It is a philosophy that, in essence, accepts that Europeans and Africans are fundamentally different and articulates that difference from an African perspective. And for the most part, it turns the tables on the West.

Its articulation formally dates to 1947, with the establishment of Presence Africaine, the French-language intellectual magazine that subsequently established an English-language edition.6 The first comprehensive articulation of the philosophy is to be found in The Cultural Unity of Black Africa? a seminal treatise by the Senegalese scholar and philosopher Cheikh Anta Diop. Also foremost in the development of Negritude was Leopold Senghor, Senegal’s first post-independence president.

That Negritude was spearheaded by Senegalese intellectuals and philosophers is quite significant. Senegal was colonized by France, which practiced the colonial policy of assimilation. It is a policy that encouraged locals to shed their traditions and seek to assimilate into French culture as a condition for being granted real or honorary French citizenship. In contrast, the British practiced indirect rule, a colonial policy that mostly let traditional structures remain thus indirectly preserving traditions. It was logical that the overt denigration of African culture under French rule would more strongly trigger a counter-narrative.

The essence of Negritude and the related concept of Afrocentricity is that black Africans are oriented toward community rather than the individual, holistic rather than atomistic thinking, a sense of continuity with rather than separation from others and the environment, and the acknowledgement of non-sensory means of knowing.

From these groundings are said to emanate more specific characteristics, such as charity, kindness, a hospitable spirit, and commitment to restorative justice. The Western world, on the other hand, is said to be individualistic, materialistic, xenophobic, war-prone, patriarchal, and misogynistic. For the most part, it is an inversion of Western exceptionalism.

Africanists also contrast Western objectivism with Africans’ non-empirical or non-sensory means of knowing. Among them are scholars such as Diop and Charles S. Finch III, who argue that there are means of knowledge beyond what is observable and measurable. And they cite the uncertainty principles of quantum mechanics as supporting evidence. Finch, a physician, even asserts that “parapsychology could justifiably be considered a branch of modern physics.”8

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